On September 28, 2007, some 75 miles into space over the Pacific
Ocean, a kill vehicle from America's missile defense system
destroyed the mock warhead of a long-range missile. This test of
the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system provides further
evidence that its "hit-to-kill" technology is effective. The GMD
interceptor destroyed the mock warhead by the force of collision
and did not use an explosive warhead of any kind.
Hit-to-kill technology is common to a variety of missile defense
interceptors now in either development or deployment. In addition
to the GMD system, the technology is used in the Navy's Standard
Missile-3, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), and Patriot
PAC-3 interceptors. Roughly 80 percent of recent tests across all
four of these programs have been successful.
Yet, critics continue to argue that missile defense will prove
ineffective. Congress should reject arguments that cloak policy
preference in technical analysis and should protect Americans with
a policy of designing and building the most effective missile
defense system possible.
Technical Arguments Driven by an Antipathy to Missile
At different times and for different reasons, an element of the
scientific and engineering communities has argued against the
adoption of a missile defense system on technical grounds. Most
prominent among these criticisms was a 2000 report from the Union
of Concerned Scientists criticizing the technical feasibility of
the GMD system.
Given the growing confidence in the technology, these scientists
and engineers now appear to be changing their tune. In fact, one
group has charged the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) of the
Department of Defense with understating the capabilities of the GMD
interceptors that may be placed in Poland. The MDA has defended its
assertion that the system will be unable to intercept Russian
long-range missiles launched at the United States.
Implied in the critics' argument is that it is inappropriate or
illegitimate for the United States to field missile defense systems
that are too effective, particularly if they possess even a limited
capability to down Russian missiles. In other words, these
scientists and engineers have argued against the GMD system both
because it is ineffective and because it is too effective. Given
these contradictory analyses, it is reasonable to conclude that
these scientists and engineers are cloaking a policy argument
against missile defense in technical analysis.
No Threat to Russia
It should be expected that, sooner or later, the U.S. missile
defense system will have some capability to shoot down Russian
missiles. As countries such as North Korea and Iran continue to
increase the ranges and velocities of their missiles, an effective
defense against these states will have some inherent capability
against Russian missiles. It cannot be otherwise.
Missile defense opponents are claiming that the system is a
threat to Russia. Leaving aside the fact that it is not a technical
argument, there is no basis for that assertion. The Bush
Administration has based its missile defense policy on the premise
that the Cold War is over, Russia is not the former Soviet Union,
and Russia is not an adversary of the United States. The
policy's goal is simple and straightforward: The missile defense
system is being designed to protect America, its forces deployed
abroad, and its allies against attack. Defending the nation against
attack can hardly be described as a threatening policy.
Optimal Basing Modes and Increased Interceptor
Given the increasing confidence in the basic hit-to-kill
technology, the focus needs to turn to devising the most effective
basing mode for missile defense interceptors and increasing the
velocity of the interceptors.
Today, ground-based interceptors dominate the overall missile
defense program. However, ground-based interceptors are not the
best basing mode under all circumstances. Sea-based and
particularly space-based interceptors offer greater mobility and
coverage. These modes also provide the best options for
intercepting attacking ballistic missiles shortly after launch, in
the boost- or ascent-phase of flight. The Independent Working Group
has called for rebalancing the overall missile defense program to
give greater emphasis to sea-based and space-based interceptors.
The greater the velocity of the interceptors, the more effective
they will be in countering all missiles-long-range missiles in
particular. There are two basic approaches to increasing the
velocity of hit-to-kill interceptors. The first is to increase the
size and power of booster rockets. The MDA has emphasized this
approach. The alternative is to design smaller and lighter kill
vehicles. Such technology could become available by reviving the
designs for the Advanced Technology Kill Vehicle (ATKV) for
sea-based interceptors and the Brilliant Pebbles space-based
interceptor. Both were developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The Independent Working Group recommends reviving both of these
programs and using them to advance the capabilities of the
sea-based interceptors and moving much more aggressively to develop
and field space-based interceptors.
Congress should pay little heed to scientists and engineers who
cloak a policy preference in technical analysis. Technical analysis
should serve to advance scientific knowledge and technology, not
the scientist's policy preferences.
Furthermore, the policy debate should be informed by
technical analysis but not driven by it. A policy that
imposes artificial limits on missile defense technology will result
in an inferior defense. Congress should reject that idea on policy
grounds and not get drawn into a technical debate over exactly
which kind of missile defense system may or may not be deemed
capable of downing Russian missiles. Rather, Congress will best
serve the national interest by adopting a simple declarative
policy: that the Department of Defense design and field the most
effective missile defense possible. Clearly, it is what the
American people expect Congress to do in their defense.
Baker Spring is
F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a
division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
Andrew M. Sessler, et al
., "Countermeasures: A Technical
Evaluation of the Operational Effectiveness of the Planned US
National Missile Defense System," Union of Concerned Scientists and
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Security Studies Program,
Missile Defense Agency, "MDA Response to 'Physicists Challenge U.S.
Missile Claims,'" For Your Information 07-FYI-0101,
September 27, 2007, at www.mda.mil/mdalink/pdf/07fyi0101.pdf
(October 11, 2007).
White House, "National Policy on Ballistic Missile Defense Fact
Sheet," May 20, 2003.
Independent Working Group, Missile Defense, the Space
Relationship, and the Twenty-First Century: 2007 Report
(Cambridge, Mass.: Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, 2006),
pp. 11-117, at www.ifpa.org/pdf/IWGreport.pdf.